Community engagement – how to increase awareness of your local issues

You may or may not have heard about a recent meeting that Coggeshall Parish Council held on the topic of the flood alleviation scheme and quarry. This was on the Monday of the heatwave in July and it drew so many people to it that it had to be moved outside from the village hall! Estimates vary for how many people were there, but there were clearly over 150. Not bad when the usual attendance rate is 1.

One of the reasons behind the huge number of people attending the meeting is a small lobby group of residents that has been set up in the village to fight this scheme. There have been similar groups in the past such as for the incinerator, and this also had a good amount of engagement. However, on other topics where you might expect this such as the Bovis development, the level of response has been much lower. With the quarry, the numbers were a new high for Coggeshall and this appears to be because of the tactics behind the campaign group.

I thought it might be helpful to set out to some clear steps that can lead to successful local engagement so hopefully, these can be replicated in the future and ensure that time isn’t lost when an issue arises:

  1. Take a position. Often people only start mobilising once a consultation has been announced or a planning application published but if you know something is coming up, be prepared and start pulling together your messages and position. For example, on the quarry there will be a planning application later this year. The lobby group against it are already preparing for this.
  2. Set up a small (not too big!) group of people and delegate who does what, but also rope in extra volunteers to do work that is more time-intensive but needs little direction, such as delivering leaflets.
  3. Create a website that is easy to remember and access. Facebook is good for reaching a large amount of people given the local group has over 5,000 members, however posts are fleeting. A website is fixed and you can keep posting the link on Facebook without having to repeat huge amounts of text that in a feed, can be difficult to read. Also, remember that some people aren’t on Facebook!
  4. Having said the above, still use social media – don’t forget Instagram as you can post the same information here as on Facebook, but could reach some people who are only on one. Social media is an easy way to post links to updates or to quickly get responses – people won’t be regularly checking websites, but they will use social media at least on a weekly basis. Be careful not to post too often though, and don’t rely on this too heavily. Simply posting on Facebook is not enough. Start a group, invite people to it, list out exactly what you are asking of people. Essentially, use it in a way that someone only has to copy and paste and click a link in order to fulfil what you are asking.
  5. Use mailing lists. This is useful because it is a way to directly target people who have expressed an interest in what you are doing – so you don’t always have to worry about making a post appealing to them as they are already likely to be bought into what you want of them.
  6. Posters. These can take more time as it is important to get the design and messages right and you will also have physical costs of printing, but they can help you reach people who are perhaps less technologically literate and ensure you aren’t excluding anyone. You can also use them to direct people to your website or target a specific message such as responding to a consultation.
  7. Contact the local media. Write a press release, try and find a journalist who you think would be interested and consider the angle you want to take that will make them want to write about what you are doing. Keep them updated, invite them to key meetings and they can help you out by providing that extra scrutiny and exposure.
  8. Find other local resources like Love Coggeshall to spread the word. Obviously we would say this, but really using as many different channels as you can is just a sensible approach. You can re-use the same content or tweak it, but by putting it out there you have the chance to reach people who may not have seen or heard about your issue.

The above steps can look like a lot, but realistically people do need to be reminded and prompted on a number of occasions if you want them to actually do something. It is also crucial to get your messages right and tell people what you would like them to do as simply as possible. This can be difficult especially where developments get quite technical. However, the decision-makers need to hear material and objective arguments. Without explaining these or even just handing them directly to people to copy, then you won’t get cut-through. Numbers are important, but numbers saying the right thing is what can make the difference.

The Parish Council has recently started a mailing list that you can sign up to here. This is their way of thinking about how they can keep in touch with the parish, as meetings tend to have few or even no attendees. While the meetings can appear dry, they do discuss important topics such as open spaces or developments.

Love Coggeshall has a mailing list (scroll to the bottom of this page and you will see the box to enter your email) and we are going to be putting together our first newsletter soon. We also have Instagram – you can find us @coggeshallessex. But we are curious as to how people want to hear from us. Given what this website aims to do, providing a platform for community groups, businesses and events, how would you like to hear from us and what kind of information would you like to get?


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